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Frances Lewine, trailblazing journalist, dies

  • Story Highlights
  • Frances Lewine, who died at age 86, battled for women's rights in journalism
  • In 1965, she became AP's first full-time female White House correspondent
  • For nearly three decades, she was a CNN assignment editor and field producer
  • Was part of sex discrimination suit against AP that led to changes at news group
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Frances Lewine, who covered the White House for The Associated Press during six presidential administrations and spent nearly three decades as a CNN editor and producer, died Saturday of an apparent stroke. She was 86.

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Frances Lewine holds two winning tickets in August 2007 at Charles Town Races in West Virginia.

Lewine was regarded as a trailblazer who battled for women's rights in journalism, fighting to open the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club -- a Washington journalists' organization -- to women.

"It's amazing that at her age, Fran was still staking out administration and elected officials after weekend talk shows," CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman said. "All of journalism has lost a true pioneer."

Lewine was assigned to the White House in 1956 to cover the activities of first ladies and the Washington social scene. But in 1965 she became the AP's first full-time female White House correspondent. Video Take a look at Lewine's career »

In 1977 she left AP to join the administration of President Jimmy Carter, and became the Department of Transportation's deputy director of public affairs. When Carter left office in 1981, Lewine moved to the newly created Cable News Network -- at age 60 -- as an assignment producer and field producer.

"When President Reagan was shot, I walked over to CNN that day and asked to help," Lewine said in a 2005 article in a newsletter for Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. "My claim to fame was, I found out what type of gun was used. They paid me $80 for my work."

Sunday would have been Lewine's 87th birthday, co-workers said. She had been recovering from surgery, but was expected to return to the office as soon as this week.

"I don't understand people who quit," Lewine said in the newsletter article. "We have the best jobs in the world. I have a front-row seat to history. What are you going to do that's possibly better than this?"

Lewine was born in 1921 in New York and grew up in Far Rockaway. She graduated from New York's Hunter College, where she edited the college newspaper and worked as a reporter for the Plainfield, New Jersey, Courier-News before moving to the Newark AP bureau.

Lewine wrote that she began covering the White House full time "with the arrival of the glamorous young Kennedys" and recalled that her working attire often was an evening dress.

She accompanied the family to Vienna, Paris, and Rome and followed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy on a vacation trip to India and Pakistan, as well as two yachting excursions in the Mediterranean.

On one of those trips, the first lady's staff attempted to keep reporters in Athens, Greece, Lewine recalled. But she and several other journalists on a rented yacht followed her from island to island and, "much to the anger of the White House," kept track of the first lady's activities by listening in on ship-to-shore radio.

Lewine's wrote that she was often frustrated at being "relegated to social and family stories and sidebars while male colleagues covered the president."

She wrote that it was a "source of disappointment and anger" that the AP never considered her an equal to male White House colleagues.

That anger, she wrote, energized her "to become a leader in the movement of women journalists in the 1950s, '60s and '70s to protest discrimination against women in their jobs and assignments."

To protest the Gridiron Club's policy against women, Lewine founded the "Counter-Gridiron." A group of women reporters and sympathetic male reporters met regularly at her home to organize protests, she recalled. Eventually, she was the second woman invited to join the Gridiron.

Lewine was one of six plaintiffs in a sex-discrimination suit filed against the AP, which was settled out of court for $2 million and changed the news organization's policies.

Lewine was also a member of the National Press Club, Executive Women in Government and the Society of Professional Journalists. She was elected to the Washington Society of Professional Journalists' Hall of Fame and to the Hunter College Hall of Fame.

Last year, she was awarded the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, the highest honor bestowed by the Missouri School of Journalism.

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"In times like these, when the credibility of our nation and our president often comes into question, it is the reporter on the scene that can raise issues and put the spotlight on problems so the nation can address them," she said in her acceptance speech.

"Reporters should understand that they have an obligation to search for the truth and to stand in the front line in holding governments and officials accountable for their actions." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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